Legality of same-sex marriage still issue for Minn. border residents

Alex Fogarty, Mara Morken
Alex Fogarty, left, and Mara Morken get their 4-month-old daughter Violet ready for bed on a recent Sunday evening in their Moorhead, Minn., home. The couple, who met in New York City back in 2004, plan to marry in coming weeks now that same-sex marriage will be legal in Minnesota.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Mara Morken and Alex Fogarty live here, where Minnesota will recognize their same-sex marriage once they tie the knot Monday. But that legal bond -- and all its rights and benefits -- will dissolve each time they cross the Red River into North Dakota.

"It's been interesting driving back and forth between Moorhead and Fargo, which we do a few times a day, thinking every time I drive across this bridge I won't be married anymore," said Morken, a stay-at-home mom with two children. "My family won't be considered a family."

Dozens of same-sex couples wed across Minnesota on Thursday, the first day the unions were made legal under a state law signed in May. As the day's euphoria ebbs, though, those who live and work in Minnesota's border communities know they must deal with some practical realities of love and the law.

The challenges are most apparent in Fargo-Moorhead. With a population of nearly 110,000, Fargo is about three times the size of Moorhead. Thousands of residents cross the border every day for work, health care and business.


Being married in Minnesota means Morken won't have to worry about medical insurance for her family or financial benefits if her spouse dies. Fogarty teaches at Minnesota State University-Moorhead and their benefits as a married couple are clear.

A hospital visit, though, could mean crisis. All of the region's hospitals are in Fargo. Legal protections for married couples will not extend across state lines and the closest Minnesota hospital is in Detroit Lakes, nearly an hour away.

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"The biggest concern for us is the health care issue," said Morken, 36. "If something terrible happens to one of us and we need to be rushed to the emergency room, if we don't have health care proxies or health care directives with us at that moment, we won't have any power as a married couple."

If one spouse is injured or killed in North Dakota, the other spouse couldn't sue for damages. If Morken has another child in a Fargo hospital, North Dakota will consider her a single mother.

Alex Fogarty, Violet Morken
Alex Fogarty rocks daughter Violet Morken, 4 months, on a recent Sunday evening in the family's Moorhead, Minn., home. While Fogarty and partner Mara Morken plan to marry, they decided to forgo a group civil wedding ceremony scheduled for midnight on Aug. 1 at the Clay County Courthouse. Instead, the couple will choose a time when their two young children can more easily attend.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

At least one Fargo man who was married Thursday in Moorhead is considering legal action seeking to have his marriage recognized in North Dakota. But with the definition of marriage as one man and one woman enshrined in the state constitution, the state isn't likely to change any time soon.

It might time to work out the cross border issues raised by same-sex marriage, says Fargo Family Law Attorney Alisha Ankers.

"We should know what the rules are when we live our lives. And right now we don't know what all the rules are with regard to the same-sex marriage," she said. "So while there's a lot of exuberance, there's also a lot of ghosts and goblins hanging out there in terms of what this means for families trying to cross state lines."


Some couples will marry in Minnesota but continue to live in North Dakota. The marriage won't be recognized by the state of North Dakota, but it should be recognized by the federal government because of a recent Supreme Court ruling.

But working the ruling into federal rules will also take time, said Jana Kooren, interim executive director of the ACLU of North Dakota and South Dakota. Different federal agencies use different language to define marriage. Some go by where a couple was married. Others rely on where people live.

Washing up for dinner
While Alex Fogarty, right, helps son Glen wash up after dinner, Mara Morken plays with Violet on the couch at their Moorhead, Minn., on a recent Sunday evening. Alex and Mara, who have been together for nearly a decade, were among those in the Minnesota Senate gallery who watched lawmakers vote 37-30 to legalize same-sex marriage in May.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

"The military has places of celebration. So if you get married in Minnesota and you're a same sex-couple and you go back to the Minot Air Force base for example, spousal benefits will be automatically recognized," Kooren said "Many others are place of residence, so it will take some time to work through all of those, but we are confident given time everyone will be able to access these rights whether you live in Minnesota or North Dakota."

Social Security benefits are based on where you live, so North Dakota residents who marry in Minnesota won't be eligible for spousal social security benefits, at least until the rules are changed. Those federal regulatory changes could take a year or longer, Kooren added.

The state border barrier to equal marriage rights is frustrating to Morken, who grew up in Moorhead. She met Fogarty, 43, in New York. The couple moved to Fargo-Moorhead three years ago.

Fogarty, though, thinks North Dakota will change.

"I think Fargo's an incredibly progressive city with really cool people. And I think they value diversity, they value equality. I'm hopeful the influence the city has will spread throughout the state," she said. "Some states can go down kicking and screaming, but we'll get there."

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